The battle takes place during the historical Carnevale of Ivrea. The story goes that sometimes in the 1300s the local tyrant decided to have his way with Violetta, the miller's daughter. The plucky lass was having none of it; she managed to get the evil nobleman drunk, and then proceeded to cut off his head.
In truth the story was a Napoleonic-era romantic revision to the carnival, in key with the revolutionary ideas of freedom and revolt that were circulating at the time. It is true, though, that the festival is an uninterrupted tradition that goes back to the medieval times. The Battle of the Oranges dates back to the 19th century as playful clashes between the people on the street and spectators on the balconies, but its latest incarnation only emerged in the post-Second World War period.
The way it works is that there are two sides, the orangieri (orange throwers) on the carri da getto (throwing wagons), heavily protected chosen throwers who ride on horse-drawn open wagons, and the people on the ground. In keeping with the spirit of the festival, the orange throwers on the wagons are meant to symbolise the well armed guards of the nobility, while the people on foot the revolting masses. Although the orange throwers on the wagons are protected by formidable gear, they are vastly outnumbered. There are observers during the three days of the festival who award prizes for bravery and accuracy.
The carnival has prompted criticism for the number of injuries that are sustained, and the perceived waste of oranges.
Unlike La Tomatina in Spain, this festival has distinct martial connotations; think of a cross between a food fight and urban warfare. Oranges are also distinctly harder projectiles than tomatoes, so if you go be prepared for some bruises, as already noted there is the occasional injury, although there are first aid tents on location to insure the safety of those attending.
Situated in the Piedmont region, Ivrea is a lovely little town, complete with a Cathedral, a castle, and a Gothic church. These small Medieval Italian towns are quite picturesque, and have a rich history. Worth visiting just on its own merits.
Where to stay
There are numerous hotels and beds and breakfasts, the price usually around €70 a night. The festival has steadily been gaining popularity, and free rooms run out quickly. It is recommended to book at least four months in advance.
The closest airport is Turin international, from there there are trains that go to Ivrea on the Turin-Aosta line.
What to wear
Wear clothing that you don't mind getting dirty. Also a red cap is a mandatory piece of clothing, people attending who are not wearing one will become immediate targets for barrages of oranges.